Health plan hinges on the young, but they’re a tough sell

WASHINGTON (AP) — Julian Senn-Raemont isn’t convinced he needs to buy health insurance when he loses coverage under his dad’s plan in a couple of years — no matter what happens in the policy debate in Washington, or how cheap the plans are.

The 24-year-old musician hasn’t known a world without a health care safety net. But he hates being forced by law to get coverage, and doesn’t think he needs it.

“I’m playing the odds,” said Senn-Raemont, who lives in Woodstock, Illinois. He will go without insurance, he said, until he starts a family or gets a job with benefits. “I feel comfortable I could get care if I needed it.”

Senn-Raemont’s outlook could pose a major problem for Republicans building a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. Insurers need young and healthy enrollees like him to buy insurance because they keep premiums down for everyone. The current law attempts to do that by mandating that everyone get coverage. The Republican plan replaces that mandate with penalties for those who let coverage lapse, and aims to entice young adults by allowing insurance companies to sell bare-bones coverage that could be cheaper.

But cheap isn’t free, which turns off people like Senn-Raemont. And other young adults worry that opening the door to these bare-bones plans will make the more comprehensive coverage they know now too expensive or even unavailable.

In Houston, 29-year-old Jimmieka Mills pays $15 a month for a government-subsidized “Obamacare” health plan. She fears Congress will weaken the health law’s guarantees of free preventive care, so she made an appointment to get a birth control implant that will last for years.

“I’m scared,” Mills said. “I’m like a bear getting ready for hibernation. That’s how I feel.”

Language is still being nailed down in the retooled bill, but it includes a proposal from conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, which would let insurers sell plans with minimal coverage, as long as they also sell policies that meet strict coverage requirements set by the Obama-era health care law. Insurers could deny the slimmer coverage to people with pre-existing conditions or charge them more.

Georgetown University health policy researcher Sabrina Corlette said young adults may find the “Cruz plans” more affordable, but they should “read the fine print.”

“You may end up with unexpected costs,” Corlette said. “And if, God forbid, you do end up needing better coverage, you will be blocked from that coverage for six months.” To encourage continuous coverage, the GOP plan installs a six-month waiting period for anyone with a two-month gap in coverage. The skimpy policies wouldn’t qualify as continuous coverage.

The insurance industry also sharply questioned this approach. In a statement last week, the industry group America’s Health Insurance Plans said the proposal would create an “un-level playing field” that would lead to “unstable health insurance markets.”

Other features of the proposal aimed at young adults include allowing them to stay on their parents’ insurance until they turn 26, as they can now, and shifting costs to older enrollees.

Current law restricts how much insurers can charge for insurance based on age. “Obamacare” limits the ratio to 3-to-1, meaning a 50-year-old can be charged only three times as much as a 20-year-old. The Republican plan shifts that ratio to 5-to-1.